Today, I had a brief conversation with a work college about Easter. It stemmed from the question I asked him, “How was you Easter”—assuming he celebrated on the Gregorian date. He responded that he doesn’t celebrate “Easter” because it is based on pagan rituals. He proceded to show me literature on where he based his claims. He also said that the Resurrection is supposed to be celebrated continually, and not just on a one day of the year. So, should we, as Orthodox Christians, properly use the term “Easter” if it based on pagan rituals of the past?
YOU WRITE: Today, I had a brief conversation with a work college about Easter. It stemmed from the question I asked him, “How was you Easter”—assuming he celebrated on the Gregorian date. He responded that he doesn’t celebrate “Easter” because it is based on pagan rituals. He proceded to show me literature on where he based his claims.
RESPONSE: He probably belongs to a so-called “Christian” sect—and there are a number of sects that use the term “Christian” but, in fact, have little in common with historic Christianity—that completely ignores the fact that historically, the Church since ancient times has celebrated the Resurrection of Christ—known to this day as “Pascha” among Orthodox Christians. Such sects are thoroughly ignorant of Church history. They confuse the contemporary use of the non-Christian term “Easter,” the secular “Easter symbols”—bunnies, chicks, and so on, none of which are found in Christian tradition, in the liturgical rites and hymns, etc.—and the like with the Tradition of the Church, which employs no such terminology or symbols. Meanwhile, the historic Tradition of the Church—and, frankly, the history of the Church itself—is completely ignored or denied, as if it never happened.
It is claimed—and it is not widely known that there is no solid consensus on this—that the word “Easter” is derived from the name of a pagan fertility goddess, “Estre.” Yet the Church, since ancient times, has referred to the celebration of the Resurrection as “Pascha,” the Greek/Hebrew for “Passover,” and not “Easter,” thereby emphasizing that the Resurrection is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Passover. Pascha is the New Testament Passover; Jesus Christ is the new Paschal Lamb Who sheds His blood, as did the OT paschal lamb, for the salvation of God’s People, that they might “pass over” from death to life, just as the OT faithful “passed over” from Egypt to the Promised Land. Hence, anyone even remotely aware of Christian history and doctrine is aware of the fact that the ancient celebration of Christ’s Resurrection is the completion and fulfillment of the OT Passover, and not a “Christianization” of pagan fertility rites and observances.
Unfortunately, in many cultures—including our own—the image of a bunny, rather than that of the victorious Christ, predominates, bearing no relationship whatsoever to the essence of Pascha; such secular symbols, however, surely do not define the Church’s Paschal celebration, nor do they indicate that they are “Church approved,” so to speak. Further, their presence is hardly a serious basis for accusing the Church of celebrating a “Christianized” version of some fertility rite or cult, as your friend would undoubtedly opine.
I might add that in some cases, we Orthodox Christians have done a poor job in proclaiming the essence of Pascha—the victory of the risen Savior.
How often do we find stories in the secular press or on TV which imply that the focus of Pascha for Orthodox Christians lies in colorful decorated eggs or in eating “traditional soup” made of lamb organs or in any number of garlic-laden sausages, with little or no mention of the Resurrection of Our Lord? [Let a member of the Jehovah Witness sect read such things, and is there any wonder that non-Orthodox individuals might wonder just what it is that we’re celebrating!!] It is crucial for Orthodox Christians to consider whether we in fact present to the world a clear picture concerning the celebration of Pascha, or whether we simply confirm for the misinformed and the detractor that we are merely continuing some pagan festival that has nothing to do with the risen Christ. In other words, we sometimes speak more of our beloved lamb and sausage and cheese recipes than of the “Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world” and Who brings us “from death to life, from earth to heaven.”
YOU WRITE: He also said that the Resurrection is supposed to be celebrated continually, and not just on a one day of the year.
RESPONSE: The Orthodox Church would agree that the Resurrection of Christ is something that is celebrated continually, as it is the very basis of our faith—and, in fact, we do this precisely each time we celebrate the Eucharist. Every Sunday we celebrate the Resurrection, as clearly noted in our hymnography. Saint Paul writes that if Christ is not raised from the dead, our teaching and preaching is a complete waste of time, a total delusion. At the same time, we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ through the ancient Paschal celebration—a celebration that in no way attempts to “duplicate” or “recreate” the original events, but which in a very real way are continuations of events that, given that they are beyond time and space, are continually happening. We do not remember “past events;” rather, we participate in that singular crucifixion, burial, and Resurrection of Christ that knows no end.
YOU WRITE: So, should we, as Orthodox Christians, properly use the term “Easter” if it based on pagan rituals of the past?
RESPONSE: As noted above, we celebrate “Pascha,” the New Passover, the victory of the new Paschal Lamb Who sheds His blood for the salvation of God’s People, and Who is not overcome by death and corruption. This celebration is not based on pagan rituals; it is based on that which is revealed to us in Scripture and celebrated by the Church since apostolic times in the Church’s Holy Tradition. Perhaps the term “Easter” is based on pagan terminology—hence it is appropriate for us to use the proper term, “Pascha”—but the eternal victory of Our Savior that we celebrate and in which we participate is hardly based on paganism.